Over the weekend, as Chicago’s bridge phase saw crowds of customers sipping beer and cocktails at bars, patrons were treated by another familiar sight to Chicagoans. A masked tamale vendor with a blue cooler entered Logan Square bars to ask if anyone wanted a tamale. This type of scene was unimaginable in 2020, but some routines are returning.
That masked hero was not Chicago’s most famous tamale vendor. Claudio Velez and his red cooler aren’t ready to return selling tamales bar to bar, but he tells Eater Chicago he’s healthy and he’s searching for a new restaurant space. Last year, Velez contracted COVID-19 which hospitalized him for a month. Though he’s healthy, he doesn’t have a commercial kitchen space to make tamales.
The city, spurred by anonymous complaints last year from the West Loop, sent Velez a cease-and-desist letter warning him about making tamales at home for public consumption. Velez was shaken by the letter, and despite a history of making and delivering tamales to Chicago’s bars for decades. Fear has grounded Velez’s tamales operation as he’s worried about fines and concerns as an undocumented immigrant.
Theoretically, Velez would have space at his Ukrainian Village restaurant, but he’s no longer involved in the operation. Several restaurant owners have reached out to Velez offering their kitchen space, but the Tamale Guy says he prefers to work independently. He’s currently tangled in a legal battle over the rights to his nickname with his restaurant partners at Tamale Guy Chicago. The next court date is June 2, according to Cook County. The lawsuit, reported by the Tribune, alleges the Vegas kept money and financial information from Velez while locking him out of the business. The practice that started while he was hospitalized. Velez’s partners in the Ukrainian Village restaurant, industry veterans Pierre and Kristin Vega, haven’t returned multiple requests for comment. They’ve argued in court they didn’t do anything wrong. While court proceedings continue, Velez says he’s been searching for a new restaurant space with his siblings. They’re looking for leads on spaces, according to Velez, who also spoke with the Facebook group True West Loop.
Elsewhere, the Chicago’s road to recovery was evident in downtown Chicago at Gibsons, the iconic steakhouse in downtown. People hugged, bumped fists, and struck up conversations with strangers through clear plastic barriers, toasting dirty martinis to better times. Some servers assured customers that staff has been vaccinated and it was OK to keep masks off while seated. Nearly every outdoor table was occupied, and the indoor bar area was bustling as well.
While the weekend was jubilant for many restaurants, not everyone was prepared to reopen. Popular pizzeria Paulie Gee’s, the New York import with two Chicago locations, on social media explained why it’s targeting a June opening for its Logan Square restaurant: some staff haven’t yet gotten the second dose of their vaccine; workers are installing a new HVAC system and ion treatment filters; and dining rooms that served as storage spaces during the pandemic need to be cleaned and prepared for patrons.
At Nick’s Beer Garden in Wicker Park, the late-night bar was scrambling to stay open until 4 a.m. for the first time since March 2020. GM Jeremy McDevitt says it would have been nice if the city provided restaurant owners with a little bit more notice than a day. Over the weekend, many bouncers pointed to signs reminding customers that despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance, that venue house rules still required masks. Chicago and Illinois officials have yet to adjust city and state mask requirements even after Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week said they would fall in line with the CDC’s lead.
And in other news...
— In another sign of some normalcy returning to town, the Tribune dining section published its first restaurant review since Phil Vettel’s January departure, an end to his 31-year tenure as the paper’s restaurant critic. Last week, the Trib promoted reporters Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger into the role. Kindelsperger reviewed Soul & Smoke, giving the Evanston restaurant three stars and remarking that the “outrageously juicy” brisket is “the best I’ve tried outside of Texas. Those who follow Kindelsperger on Instagram may get an idea of what reviews will pop up in the paper, unlike his predecessor, he’s much more active on the medium. Vettel’s last review came in September when he gave Ever four stars.
— Dough Something, the anti-racism campaign founded by decorated chef Beverly Kim (Parachute, Wherewithall), will on Monday, May 24 raise funds with a panel on race and identity in the restaurant industry. Moderated by Monica Eng of WBEZ, the panel will feature Kim, Nyesha Arrington (Leona, Native), Erik Bruner-Yang (Maketto), Brandon Jew (Mister Jiu’s), and Preeti Mistry (Juhu Beach Club). Tickets ($10) are available via Eventbrite. Kim was also featured this month in ABC’s “Our America: Asian Voices” special.
— Sure, popular passenger boat Chicago Water Taxi will resume operations on May 29 after a year-long hiatus, but its yellow water crafts aren’t the only ones hitting the river: Phase Three Brewing of Lake Zurich, Illinois, every Thursday starting May 20 will host a tap takeover with Chicago Fireboat Tours featuring newly-released beers over the course of a 2-hour Sunset Brew Cruise. More details and tickets are available online.
— Chicago’s well-known Goose Island Beer Co. is on the hunt for a new brewmaster as Keith Gabbett, who currently holds the position, has been promoted to a new position invented just for him: “senior innovation manager,” according to Forbes. Local brewers looking to take their shot can apply on the brewery’s website.